Mexican megachurch leader back in court in child rape case

Mexican megachurch leader back in court in child rape case
FILE - In this July 15, 2019, file photo, Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of a Mexico-based evangelical church with a worldwide membership, attends a bail review hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court in Los Angeles. Garcia, who is considered the church’s apostle, and two co-defendants were arrested in June on suspicion of sexually abusing three girls and a woman in Los Angeles County. All three have pleaded not guilty and a fourth defendant remains at large. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Prosecutors will detail Thursday accusations of child rape and human trafficking against the leader of Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo.

Naason Joaquin Garcia, who is considered the church’s apostle, and two co-defendants were arrested in June on suspicion of sexually abusing three girls and a woman in Los Angeles County. All three have pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles Superior Court, and a fourth defendant remains at large.

Garcia is being held without bail after a historically high $50 million bail was set earlier in the case. His attorneys have raised concerns about potential evidence manipulation, as well as a theory of conspiracy, saying that a complaining witness has tried to frame their client.

The victims were allegedly told they would be going against God if they didn’t acquiesce to Garcia and his sexual demands. Garcia heads up the international evangelical megachurch, which boasts 5 million followers — dozens of whom have attended his court proceedings.

Prosecutors have sought to keep Garcia behind bars as he awaits trial, saying he poses a threat to “hundreds of girls” if he gets released. Prosecutors have also said they were concerned Garcia’s followers could raise money for his bail, even when it was $50 million.

While the attorney general’s office says there could be additional victims and charges, only three counts of child pornography have been added since Garcia’s arrest. In June, Judge Teresa Sullivan said prosecutors must offer more evidence of the allegations. It was unclear if Sullivan would oversee Thursday’s hearing, in which the judge will decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial.

Investigators said in July they were still going through thousands of photos and videos. They said some they had already reviewed allegedly contained sexual images of persons believed to be minors, as well as sexual assaults in video footage.

The attorney general’s office declined to provide additional information Wednesday ahead of the hearing.

Allen Sawyer, one of Garcia’s lawyers, says prosecutors have not disclosed their discovery. They have promised to turn over evidence, he said, “and it hasn’t materialized.”

He said that failure could lead to a judge setting bail for his client.

Sawyer said his independent investigation has taken him to Mexico.